Can a 30-year-old newcomer/H’wood outsider steal this year’s Oscar for best picture? Whiplash whippersnapper Damien Chazelle is determined to go the distance.
Knockout! Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s quasiautobiographical hit film, Whiplash, tells the the story of a drumming student and his tyrannical teacher.
“I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else,” says filmmaker Damien Chazelle, 30, of his chosen métier. His lifelong determination is reflected in his latest opus, Whiplash, one of this Oscar season’s most unlikely hits. The quasi-autobiographical film, which he both wrote and directed, is garnering accolades not only for both its stars, J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, and for Chazelle himself—not only was he nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing, but the movie received a coveted nod for Best Motion Picture of the Year. “Because it was such a personal thing to write, the whole question in my mind was, To what extent will anyone else connect with this? So, [the film’s near-universal praise has] been the biggest sort of joy,” he says.
Whiplash takes place at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory and centers around the fractious relationship between drumming student Andrew Neiman, played by Teller, and his abusive yet brilliant instructor, Terence Fletcher (Simmons). “I was a jazz drummer—in my case, in high school—in a big-band classroom setting with a very tough teacher and a very competitive climate,” Chazelle says of his Princeton, New Jersey, education. While he’s quick to point out that the character Andrew and he are not one and the same, Chazelle drew on many of his own experiences to craft the script. “I remembered the step-by-step journey I went on as a drummer during those years,” he says. “The emotions I felt, the fear, the ambition, the physical pain, but also the exhilaration of playing. I just burrowed down and wrote.”
The resulting script was so seamless that principal photography in LA was completed in just 19 days, an almost unheard of timetable for a feature-length film. “It’s the kind of schedule that only works if you have a really dedicated cast and crew,” Chazelle notes. “There was no room for messing around, so I got very lucky with the people I worked with.”
The compliment is returned by his actors: “Damien’s level of musicianship was absolutely essential for this project,” says Simmons. “That was evident in the writing, in the way he shot the musical sequences, and the way he blocked them. The other thing that I think is overlooked is that Damien is just a really sweet, kind human being, and a guy who, despite his prodigious intellect and talent, is very much a collaborator.”
In fact, in his next project, a full-fledged movie musical called La La Land, Chazelle will again be pairing up with Teller. “There are so few original musicals these days that aren’t adaptations,” Chazelle says. “I’ve been trying to get this off the ground since even before Whiplash and [now] Whiplash has kind of allowed it to happen. This is certainly my dream project. Well, for now. I’m sure I’ll come up with more dream projects. There’s always something to dream about.”